Nuking the Nuke Ban

Inability to confirm nuclear blasts continues to dog test ban treaty despite new study and Obama’s push for ratification

• March 30, 2012 5:00 am


An interagency intelligence assessment of the controversial Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) concludes that verifying the pact’s ban on nuclear tests remains difficult and that verification problems remain unresolved since the Senate first rejected the treaty in 1999.

U.S. officials familiar with the assessment said the negative estimate contrasts with a new, more optimistic, assessment of the treaty set for release on Friday by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The 2010 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) outlined numerous problems with verifying whether a country conducts a nuclear test.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that without intrusive, on-site inspections, the treaty would be difficult to verify.

The Academy study, by contrast, concludes that international monitoring can adequately detect nuclear tests around the world, and that U.S. nuclear forces can be maintained without testing, according to officials familiar with the study.

However, the latest NAS study—like a report done on CTBT in 2002—also notes that there are problems with the treaty. The NAS study was produced in two versions, secret and unclassified.

A congressional national security aide said the Academy study was paid for by the Obama administration’s Energy and State Departments; as a result, its conclusions reflect the administration’s policy of pressing ahead with another ratification attempt, possibly next year.

A Senate vote on the treaty prior to November is very unlikely as most Republicans oppose the pact.

However, Obama’s recent comment to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev promising more flexibility in missile defense talks after the election is raising concerns among treaty opponents that a new ratification drive will be launched after the election.

Senate minority whip Jon Kyl and Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lead criticism of the treaty in the Senate.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry is said to be a leading Senate proponent for CTBT.

The congressional aide noted that Sen. Kyl did not seek to kill the New START arms treaty with Russia, but has said he would work to end the CTBT if it is brought before the Senate.

A second congressional aide said the NAS study was "overwhelmingly stacked with pro-CTBT backers."

Additionally, the aide said the 2010 NIE on the CTBT "doesn’t paint nearly as rosy a picture for the treaty, which is why the White House is not pressuring the intelligence community to brief it to Congress."

Instead, liberal political scientists in the past two weeks arranged briefings on Capital Hill to promote the treaty through the Academy study.

"They don’t have the votes in the Senate, but they want the left to think they care so they can get their vote," this aide said of administration arms control officials.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is an international accord that bans all nuclear test explosions. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, and since signed by 182 states and ratified by 157.

The United States signed the treaty but the Senate rejected ratification in October 1999 as against U.S. national security interests. Because of a Senate technicality, the treaty was withdrawn after the vote and can be re-introduced.

President Obama said during his 2008 election campaign that he would seek Senate ratification of the CTBT.

Critics of the treaty have said enactment of a complete testing ban would encourage nuclear proliferation while preventing the United States from conducting future tests that my be needed to ensure the reliability of nuclear weapons.

A State Department spokesman referred questions about the CTBT to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Michael Birmingham, an ODNI spokesman, declined to comment on the NIE.

An example of the problem of verifying nuclear tests occurred in 2009 when North Korea carried out what is believed to have been its second underground nuclear test.

U.S. intelligence agencies remain unable to determine with high confidence whether the North Korean blast was in fact produced by a nuclear weapon.

An earlier test in 2006 was determined conclusively to have been the result of a nuclear explosion.

Paula A. DeSutter, former assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, said the Academy study is expected to claim that improvements in international monitoring make the pact adequately verifiable, "even though the touted improvements are actually just the deployment of more of the sensors that were agreed to be deployed all along."

"The inadequacy of verification that was of serious concern to the Senate in 1999, however, was based on far more significant problems than the fact that most of the monitoring system had not been deployed," DeSutter told the Free Beacon.

"The CTBT is not effectively verifiable because of how it is written, and the fact that both politically and militarily significant cheating can be hidden by a committed violator."

Liberal arms control advocates and conservative national security proponents will speak out on the CTBT on Friday, coinciding with the release of the National Academy of Science study.

The conservative Heritage Foundation will host a forum it is calling the "flawed case for reconsidering the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

Retired Vice Adm. Robert Monroe said that CTBT ratification would be a grave mistake. "The national security costs of ratification are immense, while the nonproliferation benefits are nonexistent," he said.

Said former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney: "President Obama’s statement to his Russian counterparts that he will be more flexible after his ‘last election’ is particularly ominous because the ‘flexibility’ he has already shown on unilaterally disarming the United States, especially with respect to nuclear deterrence, has seriously degraded our security and is making the world a much more dangerous place."

"It is frightening to think how much more damage he might be able to do if he is no longer accountable to the American people in a second term," Gaffney said.

A blue ribbon panel of experts led by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Keith Payne, a former Pentagon strategic nuclear specialist, concluded in a 2011 report that the CTBT has questionable verification provisions and lacks any serious enforcement mechanisms.

"The history of arms control from the 1930s until today demonstrates that, absent strong verification and enforcement measures, some states will cheat," Woolsey and Payne said in the report. "CTBT proponents too often dismiss this problem. In doing so, they undermine the enterprise and promote the mistaken notion that CTBT verification and enforcement problems have been solved."

Ratifying the CTBT would restrict U.S. efforts to develop new capabilities needed to deter future threats.

Treaty ratification is "worse than a ‘feel good’ gesture without substance; it could threaten our capability to deter threats to us and our allies," they said.

Former Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary and Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the liberal Arms Control Association, called for CTBT ratification in an op-ed in September. They argued that testing is essential to building nuclear arms.

Others, however, note that testing is no longer necessary for a viable nuclear device, as shown by early U.S. development of nuclear arms.

Published under: Jon Kyl, Nuclear Weapons, Russia